Will Mexico's New President Continue the War on the Cartels?


Nov 16, 2012

Protest in Mexico City against the major presidential candidate Enrique Peña Nieto

June 2012 protest in Mexico City against the major presidential candidate Enrique Peña Nieto

photo by Julie Hagenbuch/Flickr.com

After being out of office for 12 years, Mexico's once perpetually dominant Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) will again take over the presidency next month. A question increasingly framed as a matter of national security north of the border is whether the new administration in Mexico City will continue the previous government's war on organized crime.

Despite the global economic crisis, Mexico's president-elect, Enrique Peña Nieto, will inherit an enviable economic situation. Currently Latin America's leading recipient of foreign direct investment, Mexico's economy is growing faster than Brazil's and could pass it to become Latin America's largest economy. With labor costs now comparable to those in China, U.S. firms increasingly see Mexico as a preferred location for production, although security concerns cause some hesitation.

The economic miracle coexists with what some analysts have called a "criminal insurgency" of powerful criminal networks motivated by profit rather than ideology—and unafraid to directly challenge the government.[i] U.S. officials worry that, unchecked, the cartels will carve out an autonomous, drug-fueled, crime-ruled narco-state sharing a 2,000-mile border with the United States. This possibility adds to concerns that the horrendous violence that has characterized Mexico's drug wars will spread into U.S. territory, especially as the cartels, already allied with U.S. street gangs, move to control downstream drug distribution, where profit margins are greater.

Worst-case scenarios envision an escalating war against increasingly powerful Mexican crime lords, ready to retaliate for extraditions or increased U.S. involvement via terrorist attacks in the U.S. or against the large diaspora of U.S. citizens in Mexico. Thus far, these scenarios have not occurred.

Homeland Security officials worry that international terrorists, inspired by al Qaeda's ideology or acting on orders from Iran or Hezbollah, will ally with Mexican cartels to carry out terrorist attacks in the United States. This has not occurred either, although the recent Iranian plot to obtain assistance from Mexico's Zeta gang in assassinating the Saudi ambassador in Washington gives the idea plausibility. Fortunately, in this case, the Iranian's Zeta contact turned out to be a U.S. undercover agent. It is not clear whether the real Zetas would have gone for the deal.

The PRI, which dominated Mexico's politics for decades following the Mexican Revolution, returns to power with a lot of baggage. Previous PRI administrations were seen as notoriously corrupt, more often partners than opponents of Mexico's drug traffickers. The government allocated the smuggling routes. Drug lords made payoffs and bought protection, but the deals kept the peace—for a while.

By 2000, the PRI had lost its absolute hold on political power and with it the government's ability to act as a referee among the traffickers, whose own power was increasing. When Felipe Calderon assumed the presidency in 2006, government authority was being openly challenged by the wealthy and well-armed cartels. Violence, which had been on a gradual downward trajectory, was again on the rise. With a weak criminal-justice system, federal law enforcement institutions riddled with corruption, and local police outgunned and intimidated or in cahoots with the traffickers, Calderon called in the army to take on the cartels.

There is consensus that after more than five years, Calderon's frontal assault on organized crime merits review. The war has achieved some success. It has decimated the top ranks of the cartels. Of the 37 men believed to be running drug gangs in 2007, 16 have been arrested by security forces and seven have been killed, while two others have been killed by rival gangs.[ii] Hundreds of other gang members have been killed or captured. Two of Mexico's most powerful gangs, the "Gulf Cartel" and the "Beltran Leyva Group," whose leader was killed three years ago, have been almost entirely wiped out.

But the state's war on cartels appears to have had only a marginal effect on drug trafficking—the cartels' chief source of income—while the removal of the top layer of cartel management has fractured organizations and increased violence as successors fought one another for control.

Overall, murders in Mexico increased nearly threefold between 2007 and 2010, while slayings related to the drug-cartel wars, which account for the majority of the country's homicides, increased more than fivefold.

The statistics, however, can be misleading. True, the first five years of Calderon's presidency, during which his war on the cartels was waged, saw an increase in the homicide rate. But at 14.5 murders per 100,000 inhabitants in 2010, it was still marginally less than Mexico's murder rate between 1982 and 2000 and less than half of the rate in the 1940s and 1950s.[iii]

As in the United States, Mexico's violence is localized. Mexico's "war zone" includes less than 4 percent of its municipalities, concentrated mainly along the U.S. border and in some states further south. More than 95 percent of Mexico's municipalities are unaffected. At its current level, Mexico's national murder rate is roughly equivalent to that of Oakland, California, and below that of St. Louis, Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. The rate is less than half that of New Orleans today, and less than one-fifth that of Washington, D.C., during the gang-led cocaine wars of the early 1990s, when the city's homicide rate ascended to 80 murders per 100,000 inhabitants.

Moreover, the violence in Mexico seems to have plateaued recently and could, some analysts believe, fall precipitately as the cartels are gradually brought under control. Others, however, believe that much of the recent increase in violent crime in Mexico is not caused by the cartels' hired guns but rather is due to a second tier of gangs who have exploited the deterioration of law and order to engage in robbery, kidnapping, and extortion. Some of these crimes are committed in an effort to raise the capital to necessary to join the major-league drug traffickers. The violent second-tier gangsters pay rent to but are not directly controlled by the cartels. If the latter analysis is correct, Mexico's violence may take longer to subside.

Perceptions of Mexico's violence are shaped not merely by its volume but also by its gruesome nature. Torture, mass murders, crucifixions, beheadings, and dismemberments indicate a strategy of calculated savagery intended by Mexico's criminals to instill terror and intimidate rival gangs, law enforcement, and troublesome journalists, as well as future targets of extortion.

During his campaign, Enrique Peña Nieto, the victorious PRI candidate, promised frightened and war-weary Mexicans a reduction in the violence, but since his election victory in July, he has sounded more and more bellicose. He has shelved the idea of a debate about drug legalization, saying that he personally does not favor the idea. Mexico's drug war will continue.

During the presidential campaign, Peña Nieto called for the Mexican armed forces to return to their barracks and replaced them with a new professional gendarmerie. He also brought in a former director of Colombia's National Police as an advisor. The government is seeking new, sophisticated surveillance technology. Building a highly professional, high-tech national police force will take time. Meanwhile, Mexican army, marine, and other federal units will remain on the streets.

Although the PRI traditionally has been prickly about its dealings with the colossus of the north, the incoming president has said that he would like to see more U.S. military instructors in Mexico. To soothe nationalist sensitivities, however, Peña Nieto has smartly put Mexico in the lead in expanding the U.S.-Mexico anti-drug initiative to the Central American countries. From a strategic standpoint, it makes sense, but it is also good politics, as it transforms Mexico from junior partner in a bilateral relationship with the United States to regional leader in a broader international effort.

The new president's hard line may reflect a newfound conviction that continuing the offensive will crack the cartels, giving PRI the victory. Or it may turn out to be mere rhetoric calculated to reassure Washington. Beneath these carefully crafted public statements, the new president and his inner circle have only begun to hint at their strategy. This week Peña Nieto proposed putting the federal police under control of the department responsible for domestic security.

U.S. law enforcement officials remain wary, especially those whose personal memories go back to the bad old days under previous PRI administrations in the 1990s. They, along with some senior Mexican military officials speaking privately, fear that the gains against the cartels will be lost. At the political level, the PRI will claim full cooperation with the United States, but at the operational level, cooperation will depend not on defined policies but on individual decisions determined by political calculations.

The incoming president of Mexico inherits an office, not the levers of power. He officially takes charge of a nation, but he must impose his authority over his own political party. Some of Peña Nieto's supporters see his elevation as not just a PRI victory over the Partido Acción Nacional (PAN), but as a victory of the new generation of PRI reformers over PRI's corrupt old dinosaurs. Others see the new president as a more photogenic cover for the old political dons. Even if reform-minded, Peña Nieto will have to work within the complex internal politics of PRI, maintaining the support of the reformers while avoiding needless quarrels with local PRI barons, some of whom are close to the traffickers and ready to cut their own deals.

Peña Nieto's immediate challenge is the violence that terrorizes Mexico's citizens, damages the country's valuable tourism industry, and discourages foreign firms from moving production facilities to Mexico and thereby creating good jobs. But PRI's promise to reduce violence, some U.S. officials fear, can be achieved in the near term only through accommodation. Confidential sources in Mexico report that, even before the election, PRI politicos were making deals with the traffickers to reduce the violence when the party returned to power.

Lowering the level of violence may prove difficult. The balance of power between the government and the cartels has changed since the 1990s. The cartels no longer see the necessity of submitting to government authority in return for reduced interference with their trafficking. A lot of guns have moved south. Despite the punishment inflicted upon the cartels over the past five years, we have little idea how Mexico's crime lords assess their current situation. The surviving capos are bloodier-minded and have far less business acumen than their predecessors. They know only violence, seek no truce, and do not flinch at ordering action without calculating the adverse effects it may have on their bottom lines. They may not see the wisdom of a deal even when it might protect their business interests—in other words, there can be no lasting accommodations.

A strategy of selective accommodation can co-exist with a strategy of selective destruction. Instead of pursuing all of the cartels at the same time, some analysts suggest that the government focus its effort on destroying the most violent cartel, removing it while providing an example to encourage the others to lower the volume of violence.[iv]

The fact that much of the violence is the work of smaller gangs reduces the capability of the cartels to deliver peace, causing some to suggest that Mexico's new president may launch a new offensive against Mexico's smaller, local gangs.[v] There is the further problem that Mexico's drug traffic reportedly now employs a half-million people. Some are chemists and truck drivers, but many are hardened criminals, products of a subculture in which violence is celebrated. They will not easily be absorbed back into society.

The uncertainties about the new Mexican government's pursuit of the war on the cartels reflect fundamentally different perspectives about its objectives. North of the border, it is perceived as a war on the traffickers—essentially an extension of the U.S. war on drugs—aimed at disrupting the flow of illegal narcotics into the United States. South of the border, it is about governance. President Calderon declared war on the cartels not because he shared the Americans' anti-drug zealotry but because the cartels threatened the state.

To be sure, the cartels' power derives from the immense profits of the drug traffic, which buy them the men and guns to wage war. This same cash flow can enable them to penetrate Mexico's legitimate economy, fund local philanthropic projects, buy football teams and build stadiums, finance their own political parties, and create the mafia state that the United States fears. That gives Mexico City and Washington a powerful mutual interest in destroying the cartels. But that will require a real strategy—more than public gestures by Mexico's new president, certainly more than an addendum to Washington's war on drugs, now in its fifth decade.

Brian Michael Jenkins is senior adviser to the president of the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.

[i] The term "criminal insurgency" was coined by John P. Sullivan. See John P. Sullivan and Adam Elkus, "State of Siege: Mexico's Criminal Insurgency," Small Wars Journal, August 19, 2008.

[ii] "Mexico's Drug Lords Are Dropping Like Flied," The Economist, InterAmerican Security Watch, October 19, 2012.

[iii] Diana Washington Valdez, "Special Report: Calderon years trail others for Mexico homicides," El Paso Times, January 26, 2012.

[iv] Such a strategy is discussed in Eric L. Olson, Considering New Strategies for Confronting Organized Crime in Mexico, Washington D.C.: Mexico Institute, Woodrow Wilson Center, March 2012.

[v] Michael Weissenstein, "Mexico Drug War: Enrique Peña Nieto Could Target Small Gangs," July 5, 2012 Huffington Post.

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